Cymru Culture

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Emlyn Davies; Billy Hughes remembered (English)

(June 01, 2016)


 Billy Hughes remembered
(The Little Digger)

 William Morris Hughes, Prif Weinidog Awstralia
William Morris Hughes,
Prime Minister of Australia

On the way home from last year's Eisteddfod in Meifod, my wife and I decided to visit the parish church of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain, a building named in honour of Saint Brigit, and which dates back to the twelfth century. What attracted us there that day was the desire to revisit the stained glass window installed in 1921.

Underneath the window are the words "Dedicated to the glory of God in memory of his mother Jane Hughes, a native of this parish, by the Right Honourable W. M. Hughes, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia." The inscription serves to underline the Welsh connection that not many people know about these days.

Ffenest liw Eglwys LlansantffraidFfenest liw Eglwys Llansantffraid,
Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain, Powys

Who, then, was William Morris Hughes?

He was born in Pimlico, London, the only son of William Hughes (1824-1891) from Holyhead and Jane Morris (1823-1869) of Llansantffraid. His mother, the daughter of farmer Peter Morris came from a farm called "Winllan", and at a young age she went to London to work, where she met William, a Welsh speaker from Holyhead, who was a carpenter working on the parliament building in Westminster. They were married in 1861, and they had their only child, William Morris Hughes, on September 25.1862.

Sadly, his mother died in a train accident aged 46, when William was only seven years old. At the time, she was near ​​Glasbury on Wye, on the way home from London to Llansantffraid. Subsequently, the young boy was sent to live with Mary Hughes, his father’s sister, who kept a guest house called Bryn Rosa in Abbey Road, Llandudno. He lived there for five years and attended the Cwlach Street School in the town, where he learnt to speak Welsh. At twelve years old, he moved back to London and secured a post as a pupil teacher at St. Stephen's School, Westminster. Following a school inspection, William Hughes was singled out for praise by none other than Matthew Arnold, the poet and writer.

But, by the age of 22, William Hughes decided to emigrate to Australia, and he moved about from place to place taking up any manual labour he could find. In 1886 he began co-habiting with Eizabeth Cutts, daughter of the lodging house where he had been staying in Sydney, and they had six children, although they never married.

Billy Hughes
Billy Hughes

This period of doing manual work led Hughes to take a keen interest in workers’ rights, and he soon gained a reputation as a campaigner for fair play and justice. He was appointed a trade union organiser, which soon led to him being elected as Member of Parliament in New South Wales in 1894. When the federal parliament was formed, he was elected to the House of Representatives.

It was no surprise that he became Prime Minister in 1915. By this time Elizabeth was dead, but he married Mary Ethel Campbell in Melbourne in 1911, and they had one daughter, Helen.

When Asquith and Lloyd George founded the Imperial War Cabinet, Billy Hughes spent three months in London, and seized upon the opportunity to visit Llandudno and Llansantffraid. The edition of the Llangollen Advertiser, dated May 12, 1916 carried the headline "Australian Premier Visits Llansantffraid" and the reporter explained it was the first time he had seen his family in “Winllan” for forty years, but unfortunately his aunt, Mrs Mary Mason, had passed away a year earlier. He visited his mother’s grave in the churchyard, and spoke with some of the residents in Welsh as he walked over to the local primary school, where the children had learnt to sing the Australian national anthem.

Eglwys Llansantffraid
Llansantffraid Church, Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain, Powys

There is no doubt that Billy Hughes and Lloyd George had become good friends during this period. They bore many similarities: two Welsh speakers, two men of a similarly small stature, two fiery orators and two with a particular talent for the caustic remark. It is very likely that the two would have spent some time discussing conscription, as this was just as contentious an issue in Australia as it was in Britain. The “Little Digger” as Hughes was known for his tenacity during the war, was completely convinced that conscription was the only answer, especially after seeing so many soldiers lying wounded in hospital beds, as he became increasingly worried that the ranks had been critically depleted following the losses in the trenches.

By the time he returned to Australia in late July 1916, the country had been torn apart by this question. The press and church leaders argued in favour of conscription, but Billy Hughes's own party, the Labour Party, was against, and so were the trade unions. This was a strange situation - the man who came to power through the ranks of the trade unions taking a different stance from his own colleagues. But Hughes decided to throw down the gauntlet by calling a referendum on the subject, and this led to a notoriously bitter and vicious campaign. When the big day arrived on October 28 that year, Billy Hughes was defeated decisively.
He was expelled from the Labour Party and lost his job as union secretary in the Sydney area, but he managed to stay on as Prime Minister by forming a new party, the National Labour Party, backed by the Liberals.

There was an election on the horizon, and Hughes knew that he stood little chance of being re-elected in his old seat in western Sydney, so he stood in another seat, in Bendigo, and, surprisingly, his new party won an easy victory.

1917 was a difficult year, with industrial conflict and bitter strikes in New South Wales. There were more losses in France, and Little Digger decided the time had come to hold another referendum, just over a year after the first. This time, the defeat was even heavier.

Hughes had promised that he would not remain Prime Minister should he lose the referendum, but he broke his word. He returned to London in June 1918 for a cabinet meeting, and he was still there in November when the war ended. Indeed, he was away from Australia for over eighteen months, having spent the first part of 1919 in the Palace of Versailles discussing the peace treaty. This was the first time ever that Australia had been part of an international agreement.

Billy Hughes a Lloyd George ym Mhalas Versailles 1916
Billy Hughes and Lloyd George in the Palace of Versailles, 1916

Four exceptionally strong characters were present around the table at these meetings: Billy Hughes on behalf of Australia, Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President, and David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister. It soon became apparent that Hughes and Wilson hated each other. Billy Hughes wanted harsh revenge on Germany, but Wilson was considerably more conciliatory. Lloyd George did not take too kindly to Wilson either, and it is said that he and Hughes very often spoke Welsh to plan their tactics against the United States so that Wilson would not be able to follow. It is said that these occasions gave great delight to Clemenceau, even though he himself was the subject of many a sarcastic remark behind his back. It is little wonder that Wilson referred to Hughes as "pestiferous varmint”. Billy Hughes certainly had a very short fuse.

Billy Hughes a Lloyd George 1916
Billy Hughes and Lloyd George in 1916

After Versailles, having been away for eighteen months, Hughes lost much of his political power. During the next few years he formed a new party yet again, but was defeated, and was forced to join the United Australian Party which led to his come-back as a member of the cabinet. His story is truly remarkable.

He switched his allegiance once more before the end of his career, and turned to the Liberals, his fifth party. He had stood in 21 general elections between 1901 and 1951 and had been elected every time.

Half a century and more after his death, a personal scandal involving Billy Hughes came to light. Everyone knew that his daughter, Helen, from his marriage to Mary, was the apple of his eye, and she had died a lonely death in a nursing home in London in 1937, within three days of reaching her 22nd birthday. No-one knew the cause of death. Then, in 2004, new information came to light when the TV programme Rewind on ABC in Australia revealed that Helen had died in childbirth, and they had managed to contact her son, David, who lived in Australia. He maintained that Billy Hughes and his wife refused to acknowledge his existence, and had only contacted him once. He felt very bitter that Hughes was unwilling to accept the fact that his daughter had given birth out of wedlock. What surprised journalists and politicians alike in Australia was Billy Hughes’ hypocrisy in trying to conceal Helen’s pregnancy, and yet he himself had six children during the relationship with his common-law wife, Elizabeth Cutts.

Billy Hughes fel hynafgwr
Billy Hughes as an old man

"The devil incarnate" was how one Welsh journalist described Billy Hughes fairly recently, but there still remain a great deal of Australians who considered him to be the greatest Prime Minister in the history of their country. Some believe that historians and journalists have done him a great injustice, while others claim he always put his personal ambition above all principles.

Certainly, Billy Hughes is not a man we can ignore.

Emlyn Davies, June 2016


If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:


     Canon William Evans; September 2017
Robert Owen; June 2017
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley; December 2016
Adelina Patti, September 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau; March 2016
Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015
The two redheads; June 2015


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine

Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2016


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